By James Martinez
It’s become a stink at the U.S. Open: a pungent marijuana smell that wafted over an outer court, clouded the concentration of one of the world’s top players and left the impression there’s no place left to escape the unofficial scent of the city.
While the exact source of the smell remained a mystery Tuesday, one thing was clear: Court 17, where eighth-seeded Maria Sakkari complained about an overwhelming whiff of pot during her first-round loss, has become notorious among players in recent years for its distinctive, unmistakable odor.
“Court 17 definitely smells like Snoop Dogg’s living room,” said Alexander Zverev, the tournament's 12th-seeded man who won his opening match on the court Tuesday. “Oh my God, it’s everywhere. The whole court smells like weed.”
Stung by stories in the wake of Sakkari’s match Monday that made it appear the U.S. Open's stands are the sporting equivalent of a Phish concert, the United States Tennis Association conducted its own investigation, of sorts, to weed out the source of the smell.
Spokesman Chris Widmaier said the USTA questioned officials and reviewed video of the midday match and found “no evidence” anyone was smoking pot in the stands of Court 17, leading to speculation it may have come from Corona Park just outside the gates of the intimate stadium court.
And he may not be just blowing smoke. Sakkari herself suggested just that when she complained to the chair umpire while up 4-1 in the first set: “The smell, oh my gosh. I think it’s from the park.”
After her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Rebeka Masarova, Sakkari told reporters: “Sometimes you smell food, sometimes you smell cigarettes, sometimes you smell weed. I mean, it’s something we cannot control, because we’re in an open space. There’s a park behind. People can do whatever they want.”
Flushing Meadows security staffer Ricardo Rojas, who was working the gate outside Court 17 on Monday, said he took a break in the park around the time of Sakkari’s match and "there was definitely a pot smell going on.” But he noted that while he enforces a strict no-smoking policy inside the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the park is “outside my jurisdiction.”
It’s legal in New York for adults 21 and older to possess up to three ounces of cannabis and up to 24 grams of concentrated cannabis for personal use, and they may smoke or vape cannabis wherever smoking tobacco is allowed.
Adam Placzek, who attended Monday’s match on Court 17 with two friends from Hartford, Connecticut, said he smelled pot but didn’t see anyone in the stands it could have been coming from. He admits he “partakes from time to time” but never would dream of lighting up at the U.S. Open.
“My boss heard about the pot story at the U.S. Open and texted me,” Placzek said. “We told him we were there and he was like, ’Well that explains the smell!”'
Other players in past years have complained about the pot smells emanating from Court 17, a 2,500-seat arena that opened in 2011 in the extreme southwest corner of the complex with little buffer to the park.
Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, who easily won her match on Court 17 on Tuesday, told a similar story: “I smelled it actually today also. You smell it a lot. I think it's just Court 17. That court is so far away, it's almost in the park. I think it’s coming from the park.”
Sakkari, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open two years ago, said the smell didn’t affect her while playing. Still, some fans at Flushing Meadows had little patience for the notion that a top player would be thrown off mentally by the smell of pot.
“It’s New York. It’s everywhere,” fan Diane Patrizio of Southampton, New York, said as she stood in line to enter Court 17. “But what are you going to do?
“There’s so many distractions at the U.S. Open. To hone in on that one thing and let that rattle you? You just can’t do that," she said.
Security staffer Rojas said cannabis odors have become an inescapable fact of life. "Turn every corner and you smell it. It’s part of our world now. You’ve got to get used to it.”
So what would he tell Sakkari or any other player who complains about pot during a world-class competition?
“Try it. ... It might help you relax.”